Inside the work of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

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Apr 6, 2016

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Has anyone ever tried to stop you from reading, buying, selling, or just owning comic books? You might not have ever even considered that as a member of the comic book community one of these things could be threatened, but, for some, it’s been a painful reality. Luckily, if something were to happen, there’s a non-profit organization you can call for help: the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF).

“The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund exists to protect the freedom to read comics. We perform that work through legal action, we perform that work through legislative monitoring, and we perform that work through education and advocacy,” CBLDF executive director Charles Brownstein told Blastr.

It’s a mission that started 30 years ago, when, in 1986, artist Denis Kitchen, who was publishing comics through his company Kitchen Sink Press, became aware of a court case called Illinois v. Correa. Otherwise known as the Friendly Frank’s Case, it focused on Michael Correa, the manager of Friendly Frank’s comic book store in Lansing, Ill., who was arrested after police officers bought adult comics from him. He was charged with possessing and intending to sell obscene materials. A number of comics were included in this category, from “Omaha” The Cat Dancer to Weirdo.

As a publisher of comics included in the case, Kitchen found out about the trial and started to help raise money to assist Correa from others in the industry. Though Correa was convicted, Kitchen used the funds he raised to assist in the appeal, which Correa won. While the court was “not impressed” with the quality of the comic books, during the appeal they determined they were not obscene. With the funds that remained, the CBLDF was officially created.

 

From there forward, the fund was established as a permanent concern with the understanding that this wasn’t the first time a case like this had happened, and it was unlikely to be the last. And, in fact, it wasn’t,” Brownstein said.

There have been numerous cases since Correa’s in which the fund has become involved. Deciding exactly which legal cases to take on when the fund has been asked for help is the job of the board of directors. They evaluate cases with the recommendation of their general counsel, Robert Corn-Revere. According to Brownstein, who has been executive director of the organization since 2002, the fund is able to resolve some cases before they even go to court. In addition to being asked for assistance, the fund also keeps an eye out through its legislative monitoring for any laws that might negatively impact First Amendment rights. Right now, the fund is part of the lawsuit Garden District Book Shop v. Stewart, joining others in taking a stand against a law in Louisiana that requires age verification on websites that have “material harmful to minors.” It’s a law that impacts not just comic book sellers, but readers as well.

As for their work in education, deciding to help in these cases is much easier, since, according to Brownstein, these “are pretty clear-cut and straightforward.” When someone contacts them for help when a book is challenged in their school or library, they can provide resources to help. They had about three dozen of these cases in the last year, with the most frequently challenged book being the graphic novel This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki. The fund also provides other resources when it comes to education. For example, on their web site, they feature a series that offers advice in how to use graphic novels in education. They also focus on informing the community about these rights issues in a number of ways, including being present at conventions like C2E2 and WonderCon, where they will often have booths, host signings and speak on panels.

 

“We publish a daily news blog, weekly newsletter, and quarterly news magazine as well as do dozens of presentations and seminars and lectures each year about the rights that are imperiled and also about the history of how free expression has been a part of comics to help raise awareness of people’s rights and to help build community,” Brownstein said.

Through the years, the fund has continued its mission in these ways but, of course, as times have changed so has their work and the issues they face. Brownstein has seen a shift from the fund operating in court almost entirely to protect retailers’ rights to sell items, to protecting artists’ rights to create, to protecting readers’ rights to read certain material, to a recent shift into the academic space.

“The common thread is that it’s always about people attempting to suppress a certain kind of comics content, but we’ve definitely seen a shift from prosecuting retailers to prosecuting readers and, currently, we’re seeing a shift where things are going to court less frequently, but communities are being called upon to defend the use of comics more frequently, so the principles are the same but, as we’ve observed, the venues have changed significantly,” he said.

Brownstein thinks the shift is due to a few factors, including how the fund has helped prove the industry will support retailers. Their last major case involving a retailer was Georgia v. Gordon Lee. Lee was the owner of the comic book store Legends, located in Rome, and was arrested after one of the comics the store gave away free during a trick-or-treat event, Alternative Comics #2, was found to have an excerpt from The Salon showing a nude Pablo Picasso painting. When a minor supposedly received the comic, parents notified police and Lee was arrested and charged for distributing the material. The fund became involved, spending about $100,000 in Lee’s defense. The case ultimately terminated in a mistrial in 2007.

Another reason Brownstein thinks cases have changed is that comics have become “a larger part of the general culture,” receiving a level of acceptance that Brownstein didn’t see when he first started at the fund. With a public that wants comics more, the comics are being noticed now by people who weren’t really aware of them before, and who have become concerned about their content.

“I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of the library challenges is because comics weren’t there, and now they are, and there’s a drive to understand them, and when you’re confronted with new media and when you’re confronted with a new way of thinking about content, one of the most natural ways to respond to something that raises ire is to try to ban it,” he said.

Throughout these changes the fund has continued to work on many important cases, such as the aforementioned Lee case, that have made a difference and are worth being aware of. One such case is even what Brownstein called their biggest loss. This was Florida v. Mike Diana, the artist who created the zine Boiled Angel.

“He was convicted of making obscene material for making his comics and ultimately was not allowed to draw in his own home as a consequence of that conviction,” he said. “This was back in the fund’s earliest days, and we had hired counsel that was really dogged about, this is art, the first amendment protects it, but the prosecution was saying ‘art is what you would hang in a museum. Look at these crude drawings, look at this gross subject matter. If you think this is art don’t convict, but if this offends your sensibility, then convict’ and they did convict.”

Brownstein said, at the time, no one thought Diana would be convicted, and that an artist could lose their right to draw. However, Diana became the first artist in the country to be criminally convicted of obscenity for their work and, in addition to other sentences, was sentenced to three years of being subject to spot checks to ensure he was not creating or possessing obscene material. He was eventually able to move out of Florida and completed a community service sentence with the help of the CBLDF.

“It is a really clear illustration of why we cannot take these rights for granted. That even though it’s unthinkable that an artist might be convicted for exercising their First Amendment rights, it has happened and it can happen again...” Brownstein said. “We lost that case because the culture, particularly the local community standards, wasn't ready to think about comics as art, much less the kinds of confrontational comics that Mike was doing as art.”

If you thought before now that such a conviction was unthinkable, you might also think just traveling with comics and comics art would not be any trouble, either. However, another case Brownstein highlighted shows that even traveling with this material could be problematic. It’s something Ryan Matheson discovered when traveling to Canada, where customs searched him and, after accessing his computer, found anime wallpaper. This prompted a continued search and, upon the discovery of manga images, Matheson found himself facing child pornography charges and being mistreated by authorities.

“The fund got involved in his case about midway, and was able to assist him on the money, because it cost around $75,000 to wage his defense, [and] on the substance that the material he had simply was not child pornography. Child pornography is photographic evidence of a crime against a real person. But it wasn’t even obscene. The stuff the Canadian authorities were saying was child pornography were drawings of chibis,” Brownstein said.

In the end, criminal charges against Matheson were dropped, but he pled to a “non-criminal code regulatory offense under the Customs Act of Canada.” According to Brownstein, cases like this still exist, and the fund will receive a number of calls a year from people saying they are facing similar accusations due to possessing manga.

“We’re able to make these cases go away consistently, but there is still a great amount of danger out there that material that is legally acceptable, manga...is very vulnerable to prosecution,” he said. “I think it’s important for your readers to know that A) if they have a problem, to call us immediately, because we have experts that can help in this, [and] B) this is still something that is out there and that law enforcement is going after, so creating better education about the value of comics and the value of manga, and that, unlike what customs agents think, manga isn’t a code word for porn, that it is simply another way of making comics, is really important.”

 

The fund encourages anyone facing a problem or noticing a First Amendment issue taking place to contact them. Making the CBLDF aware of these things is one of a number of ways you can help them with their mission, which is quite a big one for a rather small organization. You can also become a member to support them monetarily, as well as help show they have the numbers and standing to fight back against problematic laws. By becoming a member and sharing information with the fund as well as sharing the fund’s information with others, Brownstein said they “can continue to create a culture of appreciation for comics value as free expression.”

The CBLDF has the backing of many in the community, including creators like Frank Miller and Jim Lee. Neil Gaiman, who is a co-chair of the fund’s advisory board, has spoken numerous times about his support of the non-profit organization. Comic book writer Amy Chu worked with the fund for their Liberty Annual 2014 and wrote a comic called “Tabbie Gets a Lesson in Censorship." She told Blastr in an email that she became aware of the fund through their strong presence at shows and through receiving some signed books that benefited them as gifts over the years.

“So, I've always kind of known about them. So, when [former Marvel editor] Lauren Sankovitch approached me about writing a kid-friendly story for their annual, I was happy to do it,” Chu said. “I think it's really important for kids (and adults) to understand what censorship is about and how it impacts their learning.” 

A recent example of the support they receive is a Kickstarter campaign they launched at the end of March. The campaign, which will support the creation of a book called She Changed Comics, was fully funded in just one day. The book will feature the stories of more than 60 women who have changed free expression in comics. Brownstein said they hope the book will “help raise appreciation, awareness, and understanding of the tremendous contributions that women have made to free expression and the tremendous contribution that free expression makes to social justice.”

 

As the CBLDF continues its work, this year it will face a big change as it moves from New York City to Portland, Oregon with, new offices set to open on or around June 1. The decision was made for a few key reasons according to Brownstein.

“One, this reduces our operating expenses significantly, so that we can direct our donors’ contributions into more program work. Number two is that Portland has a tremendous community, both of people within comics, but also people within advocacy, that we believe we can engage with to better develop our mission in the years to come,” he said. “And, finally, the comics industry is migrating increasingly to the west coast, and so this proximity allows us better opportunities to collaborate with the partner organizations that make our work possible.”

No matter where they’re located, it’s clear the fund will keep fighting for the First Amendment rights of the comic book community. You can find out more about the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and how you can become involved by visiting their web site.